Supporting LGBTQI+ refugees in finding their new homes

“Being a trans refugee and working with other trans refugees is something not to be taken for granted,” says Norma Lize, the communications manager of Rainbow Refugee, a local organization providing support to those fleeing from persecution because of their LGBTQI+ identity.

Since 2000, Rainbow Refugee has been helping LGBTQI+ refugee claimants with their applications and resettlement in Canada in addition to building community and government partnerships. According to Lize, the personal experience of their staff members, which often resembles those of their clients, is one of Rainbow Refugee’s most valuable assets.

The power of shared experience

“Thirteen out of 15 staff at Rainbow Refugee have lived experiences either through immigration or being refugees,” she says. “We believe that our members who went through the system know exactly how to support newcomers and people who are struggling to navigate it.”

Lize herself received support from the organization to navigate the refugee system in 2019. At the time, she had only been in Vancouver for a month. Prior to her current role, she was a volunteer for the organization, then a sponsorship coordinator. Lize says she deeply resonates with the organization’s values, particularly those that highlight the importance of understanding and caring for others.

“I can say that I lead with empathy and compassion in everything I do in life,” she says, while noting that working with other LGBTQI+ refugees with similar life experiences has been the most meaningful part of her job.

A first-hand understanding of immigration struggles, particularly for LGBTQI+ people, was also what prompted Rainbow Refugee’s founder, Chris Morrissey, to establish the organization. During the 90s, Morrissey took the Canadian government to court after they denied her partner permanent residence by refusing the legitimacy of same-sex partnerships. Lize recounts that as their cause grew and their partnership eventually legally recognized, Morrissey started a website which received requests from people around the world faced with persecution.

“They invited community members to come together,” she says, referring to Morrissey’s work with Robb Hughes, the organization’s lawyer at that time. “They were surprised to see that the majority of people who turned up were people who managed to get to Canada somehow and who wanted to stay because they were afraid to go back to their home countries.”

According to Lize, Rainbow Refugee has since outgrown its volunteer-run structure, which started with just six volunteers, to a registered charity with a governance board and 15 employees. The organization has also expanded to working with community organizations, particularly through its education and advocacy initiatives. Lize notes that this work is carried out through an anti-colonial, anti-racism, and anti-oppressive lens.

Building new communities

Norma Lize, communications manager of Rainbow Refugee. | Photo courtesy of Belle Ancell Photography.

“We spearhead many educational initiatives in our communities, providing training and workshops for settlement organizations that are seeking to be LGBTQI+ competent, along with LGBTQI+ organizations that want to deepen their understanding of how to support mostly racialized people with forced displacement experience,” says Lize.

In 2011, the organization collaborated with Canada’s federal government to establish the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership (RRAP), a nation-wide, blended sponsorship program for LGBTQI+ asylum claimants. According to Lize, the program brings together those interested in group sponsorship and provides mentorship during both the sponsorship and resettlement processes.

“One of the common challenges that our members face is system navigation and processing time in and outside of Canada,” says Lize. “And the challenge once they are here would be finding affordable housing.”

In addition to advocating for their rights, Lize notes that part of Rainbow Refugee’s work involves supporting refugees with resources. One of these resources is their Q-HINNT program, which helps refugees find pathways to secure and affordable housing. Additionally, their Time to Thrive program offers psycho-social assistance to refugees, including mental health care and other service referrals.

Through workshops, support groups, and other social activities, this program also allows Rainbow Refugee’s clients to build social networks, along with a sense of belonging, in Canada.

“Time to Thrive seeks to provide comprehensive support and advocacy for LGBTQI+ refugees and newcomers so that they can be empowered to thrive rather than simply survive,” says Lize.

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